a great time to be a brand or business with a real spine


“We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”

Veronica Roth, Divergent


Personally, I think it’s a great time to be a brand or a business with a real spine. A business willing to take a stand and actually defend it. That doesn’t mean a business shouldn’t be cautious, or, well, pragmatic with regard to who and what they are and what they take a stand on. That said. I have been consistently unequivocal with regard to my belief on whether a business should wade into social issues. And, as I consistently say, I have Peter Drucker on my side.


“These are strange times indeed. But, a brand must be true to who and what the brand is, or they are nothing but a disingenuous fabrication. And for a brand to deny its truth is the fastest path to extinction and irrelevance. That said, I don’t believe it’s wise for brands to flirt with controversy or fly false flags to curry favor in cultural moments in order to mask their true selves. But whether brand or human, honesty with one’s self is the only lasting bankable value.”

Don Perkins


Which leads me to “be true to thineself”.

I actually don’t believe it is a tricky time for honesty, I think it’s a tricky time for clarity. If a business, or brand, is a bit lazy in their communication and stance, that laziness is ruthlessly penalized. Nuance is gaining importance and nuance demands a certain type of rigor (thought, actions, and words). It’s kind of like when a brand elevated a tertiary benefit to the forefront. Businesses are deciding whether they should elevate something that has been most likely lurking in the depths of who and what they are (at least the ones who don’t make shit up just to follow public sentiment). The lazy critics pound away on “but your primary benefit is x”, but the elevation is depth of values AND value creation. Oh. Yeah. Taking a stand is about value creation. that doesn’t mean everyone will see the value created, but not everyone has to (or should), only enough people with which your future value is secured. Lastly. There is the short term versus long term mentality. Everything, and I mean everything, gets skewered short term – and amplified, but business needs to get better at having a long(er) term view. Everything I just wrote demands a spine to navigate.

Which leads me to the difference between playing with identity positioning versus values positioning.

What I mean by that is with identity positioning I pick an object or topic, like standing for a rifle or patriotism at the core of what my business stands for. Neither of which are bad generally speaking. The majority of people who own a rifle are good people and the majority of Patriots are good people. The problem with those positionings is that you’re also stuck with the bad people who associate themselves with owning a rifle or Patriotism. The brand is forced to state “I do not support that” while accepting the fact they buy your shit. They have self selected in and your semi-vapid positioning gave them a tent to stand under. Your positioning has invited them in and ejecting them will make them mad.

Conversely, if I take a values positioning I create some coherence around that particular value. I force some people to make some choices beyond simply being something like an owner of a rifle or some ubiquitous patriot.

I take a stance on body appearance.

I take a stance on the importance of the environment.

I take a stance on minorities rights.

Those aren’t identity politics or positions, they are a reflection of things that you value and your values. It’s making a stand for something that you actually do believe in that is neither ubiquitous nor unequivocal. You make people select in on that ‘value’, characteristic, and make others decide they don’t. In doing so you inevitably fall into the intellectually lazy cultural debate that we all fell into in the All Lives Matter versus Black Lives Matter discussion. All lives Matters is ubiquitous. It is a relatively meaningless statement which provides a big tent for everybody to stand under say nothing meaningful and not have to be clear with regard to what they mean. Black Lives Matter was a choice. It didn’t mean that all lives didn’t matter just that black people face recognizable social issues, disparities faced by Black Americans, and it matters that we recognize them. It didn’t mean that all people don’t face some social issues just that black people face some systemic ones and ones that should be recognized by all people (particularly within the context of the moment). They made you choose and some people got angry they had to not choose to support black americans.

But, circling back to brands, even ubiquitous positioning falls into the same trap that cultural identity positionings do. For example, Coca Cola is a ubiquitous brand with a ubiquitous positioning: happiness. Nothing wrong with it in fact one could argue that spreading happiness is a good thing. Ok, maybe not through sugar drinks, but that’s a different issue for a different time. Anyway. Within a ubiquitous happiness positioning Coca Cola is forced to accept the fact that Neo Nazis drink Coca Cola at their annual conventions and gatherings and the Uighur prison guards in China sip Coca Cola at their job. Therefore, Coke has to say we do not support Neo Nazis, we do not support what is happening to the Uighurs in China, but Neo Nazis and Uighur prison camp guards deserve their moments of happiness (aside: “and we will not remove the distribution to them”). That’s kind of the position they’re stuck in.

And maybe that is my larger point.

We can argue about whether America is divided or fragmented or broken until we are blue in the face. We can even argue whether brands taking a stand divides, fragments or breaks. But. The truth is that at some point, maybe in the mid-2010’s, a shitload of people began realizing they needed to be clearer about what they believed in, and didn’t believe in. And, as I think we can all agree on, that can be an uncomfortable discussion. But it can be an incredibly important discussion if you think long term about addressing submerged issues which are like barnacles on the bottom of progress, productivity and some sensemaking coherence. I think it’s an incredibly important discussion if you are thinking about the long term progress, productivity and sensemaking (how people make sense of you as a business & brand) as a business. I think its crazy to think businesses and brands can ignore this AND not pay some price in the future. being ubiquitous or straddling the fence (which saying nothing is) may be palatable short term, my guess is that they are simply putting off the payment due.

That said.

I think it is a great time to be a business and a brand with a spine. In a world of flux, where most people are confused by a range of issues, if your business can stand up, and stand out, you simultaneously become a target and a hunter. You are hunting the future – customers, users, employees and potential in general. I say hunt. Ponder.


“Human rights’ are a fine thing, but how can we make ourselves sure that our rights do not expand at the expense of the rights of others. A society with unlimited rights is incapable of standing to adversity. If we do not wish to be ruled by a coercive authority, then each of us must rein himself in…A stable society is achieved not by balancing opposing forces but by conscious self-limitation: by the principle that we are always duty-bound to defer to the sense of moral justice.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A final note on the (current) elephant in the room: Bud Light. I worry the wrong lessons are being learned and it makes businesses increasingly cautious to do what they believe is the right thing to do.

First. The core audience false narrative. All the non-brand/marketing people (those who have never worked in it) keep talking about “product switching” and “never coming back.” What a bunch of baloney. As the experienced brand people know the majority of any brand’s sales are not ‘loyal’ users but rather light users who purchase now and then. Bud Light “loyal” drinkers are still “loyal” drinkers (whatever that may actually be because how does one be loyal to a tasteless beer). Lots of lower purchase people bought something else. If I were a betting man, once this brouhaha is over, they will go back to buying Bud Light on occasion.

Second. Sales declines are year over year. Yeah. decline is bad and 25% year over year is really bad. But, as any sane business person would tell you, chasing short term bad, or good, news is silly. What’s gonna matter is a year from now. See my first point to tell you why. But the larger issue is that we, in America, have a short term problem. We see everything through immediate & now bifocals assuming that what is in the present is representative of the future. That’s nuts. That’s not healthy.

Third. The real issue has nothing to do with sending a transgender influencer one case of personalized beers. The real issue is what Bud Light did when it did become public. They got wishy washy. They lost their spine. All they had to do was say “yeah, transgenders drink Bud Light, if it bugs you, don’t drink Bud Light with a transgender.” Instead they actually believed a majority of people were outraged (a majority were not) and then tried to appeal to the raucous transgender fear mongering group. That didn’t please anyone. The loud anti-transgender hardcore smallish group said “too late”, the majority who couldn’t believe it was a brouhaha wasn’t pleased that Bud Light didn’t stand up for what they did. And Bud Light, generally speaking, kept sending out messages that not only did they stand for nothing but they tripled down on a ubiquitous positioning (simply reminding a shitload of people they weren’t quite sure why they had been buying Bud Light all along). So while the numbers may have slipped with the anti-transgender crowd sliding over to another horrible bland light beer, it wouldn’t have been as bad as also losing the crowd who was fine with transgenders drinking the same beer as they shifted to another horrible bland light beer. I imagine my point is if Bud Light had a spine, they wouldn’t be having the trouble they are currently having.

Written by Bruce